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Arkady Shulman

Memories of V. M. Lesnikov

Memories of Ludmila Surkova




Atalia Belenkaya

Memories of Surkova Ludmila Saulovna

Liady is a small settlement, where I was lucky to be born on January 30th, 1919. It was separated by the Mereya River into two parts: the Jewish and the Russian.

The bazaar square, where our house was located, was considered the center of the settlement. The square was surrounded with wooden houses. Our house was somewhat bigger than the rest. My grandfather was a merchant and sold flax. Father rejected the inheritance and worked for his brother as an accountant. After the revolution uncle Bera opened a cook-shop in the house and provided lodging for peasants who came to visit trade fairs.

Opposite the house there was a pharmacy. One summer morning I ran out of the house, wearing only a shirt, and headed in the direction of teenage girls, the pharmacist’s daughters, Lusia and Nusia.

Suddenly the square started filling with horses and carriages. All I could see above my head were horse heads, chewing grass. It smelled of sweat, manure and hay. Where was my house? Where was the pharmacy? Where was I to go? And then – what a relief! A man takes me into his arms and brings me home. I think it is a shop owner.

The basement floor of our house was occupied by a small shop that sold scythes, sickles, pitchforks, harness, matches, soap, nails, ropes, cabbage, pickles, sugar, burning oil…Sometimes the owner’s son treated me and my brother with candy.

After the fairs peasants came to our spacious hall and sat at a long table. In the middle of the table stood a huge copper samovar, a saucer with bluish sugar, bread and a big bowl of boiled potatoes. The guests were drinking tea holding saucers at the bottom with tips of their fingers. Amazing! I will learn to do that when I grow up!

Meanwhile I took a cooled down glass into my palms and sucked through my teeth, biting off the thin glass when I got too distracted.

After the tea ceremony guests would sing old songs.

My grandmother’s friends came to visit us on winter evenings. Usually they would spin yarn. My grandmother, wrinkled, in a loose dark dress, a grey shawl and slippers, was spinning, too. I always attempted to slip by her unnoticed. Otherwise she would make me do some housework.

There were no toys to play with. I had only two, sent from abroad.

One of them was a teddy bear. Something rattled inside it when we shook it and my curious brother suggested ripping it up to find out what that was. Inside we found a bubble with chocks. That was not a very exciting discovery so we just put it back and mended the toy. The bubble burst and the teddy bear became silent forever. Despite the unsuccessful operation, the teddy bear turned out to be a long-liver. He survived the New Economic Policy, collectivization, the war, the Perestroika and became a family relic for nephews of my school friend Ira Muravieva. Now it is 80 years old, mature and bald.

The second toy was textile mosaic, called “embroidery”. It consisted of boxes with tubes, filled with pieces of wool. The pieces were sticking out of the tubes and looked like bright colorful balls of all possible hues. There was a big box that served as the mosaic base – empty cells where we inserted the colorful tubes and made fantastic colorful images.

However playing with regular things was not worse. We had a lot of them: stationery, matches, paper, scissors a small container with quicksilver.

Mother also had many exciting things in possession. She had graduated from a dental school in Kiev and got all the necessary equipment as a present from her brother.

Before the revolution she had her own practice in Smolensk. In the evening she spent everything she had earned in the afternoon – invited friends, bought fashionable clothes.

My parents were optimistic and excited about the revolution. They hoped for freedom, equality and fraternity. And free healthcare!

Mother opened a free of charge clinic in Liady. The salary came from the community. Parents were social democrats and their lives span around this ideology.

There was no electricity in Liady. In villages people burnt splinters; we had candles and oil lamps.

In the evenings we lit candles in long copper candleholders and then observed fantastic shadows growing, melting and tossing about on the walls.

Father used to give shadow performances, showing us shadow animals – a rabbit, a dog, a chewing goat, an elephant. Their shadows were dancing on the wall.

Mother was working and father took care of us. He usually completed his work really fast and then made us shoes, mended stoves. He was young, dark-haired, with a moustache. He told us fairy tales and made tale characters from bread.

One day a new person appeared at our house. I do not remember for certain when that happened. Her name was Julia, a refugee from Poland, an incredibly beautiful girl. She started stuttering after experiencing the horrors of the war. Mother was very kind to her and that cured her. She asked for permission to stay with us and help with the housework. Round-faced, with rosy cheeks, a thick plait and sweet brown eyes - I could not stop staring at her and followed her everywhere.

She taught me to do little things around the house. One time, when I followed her to the river, Julia went down to the water, entered the river and called me. It could not be true! The river was so deep and Julia was not sinking! She calmed me down:

– Don’t be afraid, I will hold you in my hands.

And she did. That was how I found out that a river has a bottom.


Once, it was a winter evening, I found out I was alone at home. The rooms were quiet, somber. I was starting to feel abandoned, when Lusia and Nusia came in.

– Where are your parents?

I complained I could not find them anywhere.

– Really? Today is your birthday! You are 2!

And they gave me a knitted hat. I could not understand what a birthday was, but I took the hat and even kept it until 1941.

For me coming of peddlers was a holiday. They stopped at the porch with trays filled with wonderful things. Mom bought thread, hairpins, combs, soap. Julia bought beads and ribbons. Grandmother – another grey shawl. I was wondering: why is it grey again, why so boring? When I grow, I will buy a beige shawl with roses and many read beads.

At home we celebrated only religious holidays to please grandmother, who was a fervent believer. The only book she read was the Torah in three languages – Hebrew, Russian and Greek. It had a wooden binding, covered with black leather and an ornamented copper clasp.

Uncle Bera and his wife Rivka also were religious. Uncle – a big man, with wide cheekbones, Chinese-looking eyes and a beard, spoke rarely and said little. However, he conscientiously said his prayers, wearing a skull-cap and a tallit.

Mother and father were not religious, but they did not speak much about it.

As a child, father used to be absorbed in reading Soviet books and avoided trade. When his father realized that he was not meant to become a merchant, he sent the kid to a Yeshiva to study and become a Rabbi.

The boy tried hard, pored over the Torah, and studied Hebrew. However, he failed to live up to grandfather’s expectations. Having found contradictions in the holy books, father became an atheist, an agnostic, a follower of Kant and Leo Tolstoy.

Tallit was put into the closet and never used. The huge volumes of Talmud were collecting dust on the attic.

Mother was five years younger than dad. The ten-year-old boy taught the five-year-old girl math and Russian grammar. She was shaved until the age of 12, as her parents believed it would strengthen her hair. At the age of 16 she grew a long plait and left for Smolensk to enter a gymnasium. Grandmother let her do it, even though everyone in the village believed it was a whim.

This was not the first extravagant thing that grandmother did. She divorced her first husband, which was unacceptable in the Jewish community, however legal, since the couple did not have children. Then she married a widower, who already had eleven children.

She gave birth to three more – two sons and a daughter, my mom.

The elder son, Yakov, became a merchant and sold timber. The younger one died during a pogrom in Odessa.

Mother managed to overcome all obstacles and became a dentist. She was especially keen on biology and, having read Darwin and Bokle, realized that the Old Testament contradicted science. She opted for science.

I still remember some things about religious holidays.

Passover – the most solemn holiday, before which one must clean everything in the house: dishes, windows, etc. The dishes have to be kosher. Our family, except for grandmother, did not observe that tradition. All year round we used a pretty dinner set, while at Passover – a cheap, but kosher, grandmother’s set.

In Liady the Passover dinner, the Seder, took place at uncle’s dining room. The room had cherry-colored wallpaper with golden streaks. We poured self-made raisin wine into silver glasses from a crystal carafe. Bread was replaced by matzot. Matzot were also used for making pancakes, ginger cookies with honey, kneidels. The center of the table was occupied by chicken or goose.

The youngest boy, Aba, sat at uncle’s feet and asked him 4 traditional questions about the Seder night. The Haggadah was the answer.


One winter evening we were drinking tea in the hall. Suddenly we were interrupted by a group of men that burst in. One of them, the tallest, wearing a long black overcoat and a grey hat, snapped:

– Give us jewelry, fast!

Mother was taken aback:

– Take anything. We have no locks.

One of the men shouted:

– You show us!

And he dragged her by the hair on the floor.

The tall man ordered:

– Take away the children!

We were locked in another room and could hear nothing. We were sitting silently close to each other. When the door was opened the men had left. All our things were scattered on the floor, silver had been thrown outside – it was too heavy to carry. We did not have any gold.

The robbers broke into all the houses, did not kill anyone, but promised to come back. Mother remembered the Odessa pogrom, after which her brother committed suicide and she said she did not want to stay in Liady. We decided to move to Smolensk.

Mother asked Julia to take our cow Burionka to the slaughter house. The girl came back from the barn crying and muttered:

– Revekka Pavlovna, I cannot, Burionka is crying.

Julia added she would not go to Smolensk and went to the kitchen. I followed. I saw her sitting on a chair, crying.

– Julia, please, don’t cry. We will return soon and bring you a chocolate bar.

…We met in Smolensk thirty years later. My mother told Julia that I was going to bring my daughter to recover after scarlet fever so Julia decided to cook for her. At that time she was working as a cook. I looked like a woman who had had a hard life and Julia was already an old and lonely woman – her husband had died. But she was still nice and pretty.

Jewish settlements in Vitebsk region

Vitebsk Albrehtovo Babinovichi Baran Bayevo Begoml Beshenkovichi Bocheikovo Bogushevsk Borkovichi Braslav Bychiha Chashniki Disna Dobromysli Dokshitsy Druya Dubrovno Glubokoye Gorodok Kamen Kohanovo Kolyshki Kopys Krasnopolie Kublichi Lepel Liady Liozno Lukoml Luzhki Lyntupy Miory Obol Oboltsy Orsha Osintorf Ostrovno Parafianovo Plissa Polotsk Prozorki Senno Sharkovshina Shumilino Sirotino Slaveni Smolyany Surazh Tolochin Ulla Verhnedvinsk Vidzy Volyntsy Yanovichi Yezerishe Zhary Ziabki

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